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Columbia Spectator Staff

In a conference call from the Oval Office on Monday, President Barack Obama, CC '83, spoke to college journalists on "the issues important to young Americans"—everything from the financial crisis to the food at (presumably) John Jay. The United States has fallen from first to 12th in the world in college graduation rates, the price tag for a college education is skyrocketing, and graduates are hard-pressed to find jobs. Obama tied each of these challenges to two overarching needs: to repair the economy, and for youths to participate in the political process. He reiterated a promise made in this year's State of the Union address: that, starting in 2014, college graduates will be able to cap monthly payments on federal student loans at 10 percent of their income. For students who go into public service, such as becoming teachers or police officers, remaining loans would be forgiven after 10 years if they kept up with payments in the meantime. But colleges must also address rising costs, he said. "If I keep on increasing Pell Grants and increasing student loan programs and making it more affordable but ... higher education inflation keeps on going up at the pace that it's going up right now, then we're going to be right back where we started." He called on colleges to publicize how each dollar of tuition money is spent. Campus facilities have improved since Obama attended college, and "somebody has to pay for that," he said. "Are we designing our universities in a way that focuses on the primary thing, which is education? You're not going to a university to join a spa—you're going there to learn so that you can have a fulfilling career. And if all the amenities ... start jacking up the cost of tuition significantly, that's a problem." If students want college costs to decrease, they may have to accept fewer on-campus luxuries, Obama said, hearkening back to his own undergraduate days at his alma mater—50-50 chance he's talking about Columbia: "Food at the cafeteria was notoriously bad. I didn't have a lot of options. We used to joke about what was for lunch that day, and there would be a bunch of nondescript stuff that wasn't particularly edible," he said. "I don't want to get in trouble with the First Lady here, because she's obviously big on improving nutrition, but I do think that you've got to think about what we can do to generally make universities more cost-effective for students." He also responded to a student from Radford University in Virginia who asked whether the current crop of college students would become the "lost generation" thanks to the economy. "Your generation is going to be just fine," he said. "Don't let anybody tell you that somehow your dreams are going to be constrained going forward." The "greatest generation," he added, "had a situation where unemployment reached 30 percent, and they essentially ended up building the American middle class to what it was. ... I have no doubt that you guys are going to be successful."

Barack Obama